One Tequila, two tequila, three tequila ....floor
Poor Tijuana. Could the publicity have been much worse? First there was the grim, drug-smuggling film Traffic which showed the Mexican border town to be a sepia-coloured, washed-out hellhole of murderous cocaine dealers and deeply corrupt cops. (Actually, to Tijuana's lasting annoyance, the film sequences were shot in another Mexican border town, Nogales.) Then there was the real-life problem that two-thirds of the 350 tons of cocaine that enter North America every year comes via the border, much of it handled by the notorious Tijuana Cartel, one of whose leaders is on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. Add to that bleak list the indisputable truth that some parts of Tijuana do for Mexico's tourist industry what Chernobyl did for ecology and you have a challenge no travel writer can resist.
With exquisite timing, I reached Tijuana on its one alcohol-free day, a tragedy caused by the local elections and a desire by government to avoid over-enthusiastic voters blowing each other away in political discussions. Frankly, I could have gone to Cheltenham for more excitement on my first evening. I stayed in the Camino Real, a large, hugely dull, Eastern European-style people warehouse, safely tucked away from the beckoning red lights of Revolucion Avenue, Tijuana's main street of unparalleled naughtiness. There are six other five-star hotels in town; choose any one rather than this. Could I have a drink as an accredited resident please? They looked at me as if I were Pecos Pete on a psychotic rampage - and promptly served me tea. A friendly tourist guide took me to a restaurant for a classic Mexican meal of tortillas and beans. Er, could I, as a man who had travelled far, have a wee drop? The waiter glowered at me and brought Diet Coke. Without tequila to wash it down, the meal tasted like wet cardboard.
It was only well after midnight that I finally managed to get a car tour of this schizophrenic border town, a place that mixes hedonism, sleaze, violence and sin city commercialism into the kind of tourist-acceptable experience that makes the journey from London worthwhile. Tijuana is the busiest and most notorious border crossing in the world (28 million people a year) and, when not pleasing the young bucks who come in from North America and Europe for a good time, it's trying to accommodate the huge internal migration of Mexican peasants from the south who have turned industrial Tijuana into the television assembly capital of the world. It is mainly these workers, separated from their families, who need some of the awful delights of the city's 'Zona Norte', the one truly nasty enclave where there are only all-too-real call girls with their menacing pimps, freely available hard drugs, knife fights and near-beer joints which make Soho's equivalent look like church vestibules.I did my tour with car doors locked and windows fully raised. Stay away, trust me.
However, the rest of Tijuana has its compensations. Much of the city takes on a kind of dedicated theme park role to Western perceptions of sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock 'n' roll. Young Californian men undergo their rite of passage here and they do it noisily, cheerfully and without intruding on other people's freedoms. Revolucion Avenue is a sort of one-stop shop for a hedonistic evening. The booze is plentiful and that T-shirt slogan says it all: 'One tequila, two tequila, three tequila ... floor.' For the pimply teenagers the next step is probably one of the hundreds of all-night pharmacies selling Viagra without a prescription. This, no doubt, is followed by a practical experiment to see how well the Viagra works and finally, in the morning, the last step for the clinically wise would be a return to the ubiquitous pharmacy for over-the-counter antibiotics. And then a walk across the border and home.
The Zona Norte apart, I liked Tijuana, with its gritty, border feel and well-controlled naughtiness. I found a place without real menace, reflecting the best and occasionally the worst of this stimulating race, forever celebrating some eternal, non-stop fiesta - loud, proud, vulgar and often in-yer-face but never without real soul. The truth is, I have felt more anxious walking home through a half-drunk QPR crowd in Shepherd's Bush. The town's embattled director of tourism, Juan Tintos, says: 'Tijuana is a girl everyone criticises but deep down wants to go out with. But we do need to get rid of the Zona Norte, and we don't need those American teenagers coming over from California. We want families and younger tourists.
This is an ideal place to spend one night as a springboard to the rest of Mexico, then head south. So why should the British come all this way? Variety, scenery, great food, excitement - Mexico!'He has a point. Tintos has also instituted a system for dealing with tourists who overdo things. He runs a special hotline which offers assistance in English for people in trouble and his office checks the town jails every day in case someone is sleeping it off and needs bail.While there have been a few murders, Tintos says this is a hazard not exclusive to Mexico (even Miami has had its share of tourist victims), but he does endorse the obvious: don't get blind drunk and don't hitchhike alone.
Will Revolucion Avenue stay as it is? Tintos smiles. 'We have to maintain some of our heritage within the law,' he says artfully. So, do Tijuana for one night and one day and then go south. There's so much more to Mexico.
Further into Mexico
Within an hour of Tijuana I came across 20th Century Fox's brand new Foxploration, their huge, working studio where they filmed Titanic and Pearl Harbor.The location now doubles as a theme park - no big rides but really interesting tours of interactive exhibits that teach you much about special effects and film-making. You can bomb a warship in a special-effects tank or manipulate the body of a giant mechanical monkey fresh off the set of the revived Planet Of The Apes, or tour what is left of the original sets of Titanic. Give the tour four hours and the kids will forgive you for everything.
I then drove half an hour further south to lobster heaven, a small seaside village called Puerto Nuevo, which has 36 seafood restaurants for an indigenous population of 600.That's because 3,000 people come to eat here every weekend and now I know why. At Henrique Murillo's restaurant, Puerto Nuevo #2, I ate rock lobster to die for. For about £12 we began with a delicious tortilla wrapped around a spicy marlin filling. This came with traditional Mexican beans and rice, and by now we were allowed to purchase alcohol again. The secret of the lobster - the best I have ever eaten - is, says Henrique, to cook it in a much-used oil with hush-hush ingredients. He told me he wouldn't reveal more about his recipe, even under torture.
I had already decided to leave Cancun to Tony Blair, to avoid Mexico City because of its thin atmosphere and dirty streets, and Acapulco because I never go where the crowd goes. So I flew south a thousand miles along the western edge of Baja California, skirting the Pacific and skimming the mountain ranges. I visited two popular tourist locations at the tip of the peninsula, San Jose and Cabo San Lucas, both within 30 miles of each other. The former is a pretty and rather boring little town, a good place to relax and unwind. It has one superb hotel, the Casa Natalia, which has large, stonebuilt, cool rooms with original Mexican art and decorations, a fine terrace restaurant with first class cuisine and good Chilean Sauvignon. Unfortunately, it has only a small plunge pool, inadequate for a proper swim.
Cabo San Lucas, along the coast, is Mexico's Blackpool, a noisy and rather vulgar tourist resort, overcrowded with short-order restaurants. Very American and too Costa del Yobbo for me. Avoid.
On the way back to San Jose we detoured into one of the continent's most exclusive hotels; its gleaming white stucco exterior reveals no name, only the clarion call of designer anonymity.There are guards who guard the guards who guard the entrances. The hotel is called Las Ventanas (pictured right) and its regulars include Kevin Costner, Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand.It's so luxurious that everyone instinctively whispers in the lobby as if the human voice must defer to the clientele and you feel the need to take your shoes off when you enter the building because common shoes are somehow - well, grubby.Hand-manicured sand surrounds each individual suite and beautifully carved canterra rock chairs line the discreet walkways.There are individual swimming pools and a staff-to-visitor ratio of what seemed like five to one. Prices - aaagh, up to £2,536 a night.
For us hoi polloi, there are ample popular hotels, all on the beach and all affordable. Sadly, some of this coastline is unsafe for swimming.Reasons for coming this far south? Whale-watching in season, good big-game fishing (£200 and up for a five-rod charter), and golf, golf, golf - but at more than £100 a round. If I had to do the trip again, I'd see more of Mexico's interior and probably give this part of Baja California a miss. The ideal tour would be Los Angeles, San Diego, Tijuana and a custommade trip to the interior.
But Baja California is about to undergo change. Under the recently elected and enlightened President Vincente Fox, the government is planning the biggest tourist development in 20 years.The plan, called Nautical Steps, will have a network of upmarket marinas running the length of the peninsula on both coasts, Pacific and Sea of Cortez. This should attract a whole new army of North American and European tourists.As it is, Mexico's golden coasts and eternal sunshine already bring in 20 million visitors and £5.8 billion a year.The new development would turn what is currently a fairly unspoiled part of the world into a middle-class Western playground.Environmentalists, however, are horrified that it would destroy the fertile Sea of Cortez, a body of water rich in whales, sea lions, dolphins and turtles.
It took a mere 30 years to transform the 200-person fishing village of Cancun into the concrete tourist empire it is today. Truth is, President Fox wants to drag Mexico closer to the world's top four tourist resorts - France, America, Spain and Italy.It's all very well having a beautiful, unspoiled environment for a handful of travellers, but it doesn't make jobs for the natives and they have a right to profit from their habitat, too.
Ultimately, Mexico is best at being Mexico, and Tijuana is one of its most endearing dimensions.The nation is clearly on the move and it won't retain its distinctive character for ever. Some things, however, will endure: the story of Zapata, the sad brass music and the Mexican obsession with death and zest for life, the rampant machismo and the hint of danger and, unpredictability, the certainty of time well spent and total absorption.
Try it. But don't take Aunt Bertha.